Priest Stranglers and Little Sparrows are not quite the odd bedfellows they sound. Both find common ground in the North Italian city of Trento (above), glorious gateway to the Dolomites. The Trentino has always been wrangled over by Italy and Austria; reaching its blood-stained apogee during the Great War. Witness the trenches and obsolete weaponry that still litter the mountain ridges. 

A benevolent legacy, though, is the intermingling of Germanic and Italian Alpine cuisines. That’s why you’ll find Strangolapreti (stranglers) and Spätzle (sparrows) sharing equal billing on the menus. The former, also known Strozzapreti, are usually a twisty pasta made up of just flour water and salt – but no eggs. Legend has it these were taken by the Church as tithes, leaving the peasants to fulminate against ‘priest-chokers’ or ‘priest-stranglers’ in anti-clerical hotbeds such as Emilia Romagna. Or maybe it’s just a reference to how you shape them by hand.

Up in Trento my Strangolapreti turned out to be a delicious local variant – spinach gnocchi. In truth, they weren’t a far remove from the Spätzle, noodles which do benefit from the presence of eggs. In the Swabian-German dialect the name translates as ‘little sparrows’, which they resemble in flight when shaped by a spoon in the traditional way.

From its South West German birthplace the dish has flown across all the Alpine regions, establishing itself everywhere and, most handily, is now nesting in a restaurant in Manchester, paying its own homage – The Spärrows.

Up on Red Bank chef/co-owner Franco Concli stays true to his own Trentino roots by making the Spätzle the traditional way, hand scraping them off the floury board and dropping them into simmering water. They are available both as savoury and, very apres ski, as a sweet, with cinammon, brown sugar and butter.

I like both the Spätzle and Gnocchi served simply with butter and sage (£7 for 110g), but on a recent visit chose the £9 version with guanciale (cured pork cheek), which was fabulously soothing. So too was a special of beetroot-tinctured agnoletti filled with ricotta and lemon. 

Russian style pelmeni dumplings with beef/pork garlic breadcrumbs (£8.50) were less satisfying. I should have gone for the Polish pierogi, little dumplings filled with melted cottage cheese and potato with soured cream and sauerkraut, a favourite from The Spärrows’ early days in a small archway near Manchester’s Victoria Station.

Since then the drinks list has gone from strength to strength under the stewardship of co-owner, Polish-born Kasia Hitchcock. It is as focused as the cool but cosy fit-out of a much larger arch space. A sake and spirits expert, she has been very canny with a wine list that majors in the very Alpine territory occupied by most of the food. Reds such as Lagrein, Teroldego and a Pinot Nero, are all there, from the Trentino/Alto Adige with their better known country cousin, Zweigelt from Austria. Its producer Sepp Moser also supplies the well-priced house white, a moreish Gruner Veltliner (the thinking person’s Sauvignon Blanc).

It all takes me back to Trento. I was in town for the annual Mostra dei Vini, the spring festival celebrating the wines of the Trentino region. After dark I mingled with the winemakers and was astonished at the variety of styles and local grape varieties used. Among the reds I liked the chunky Marzeminos, the more ethereal Pinot Neros and the flagship Teroldegos, with Muller-Thurgau outstanding among the whites. The delicate Nosiola, grown in a small corner of Trentino only, fared better as the base for the dessert wine Vino Santo (not Vin Santo, that’s Tuscan).

The jolly fest was held in the stunning Castello del Buonconsiglio. The original 13th century Castelvecchio (“old castle”) is in contrast to all the Renaissance add-ons in different styles erected to the glory of various Prince-Bishops who ruled here in the name of the Holy Roman Empire. Cardinal Bernardio Clesio, the greatest of these, was responsible for its vast artistic treasure house, the Palazzo Magno. I liked the earlier Gothic-Venetian loggia.

The castle also houses a grim reminder of the bloody Italian campaign during the Great War – the dungeon that housed patriot martyr Cesare Battisti before he was hanged  in the castle grounds. This was Austrian territory then and they regarded him as a traitor for fighting on the Italian side. A Battisti mausoleum tops a hill outside Trento. As I write this piece on our own Remembrance Day I’ve opened a bottle of Teroldego to salute the fallen on a front that most Britons have never heard of.

The Spärrows, 16 Red Bank (Green Quarter), Manchester, M4 4HF. 0161 302 6267. Word of warning: access is via a plain door with minimal signage.

It’s a 30 mile meander across the West Flanders fields from Dranouter in Heuvelland to Dottignies in French-speaking Wallonia. You’re always just in Belgium but aware that this is border country, in the hinterland of France’s fifth largest city, Lille. On a squally Saturday afternoon up on the Pennine Moors there’s a decided gustatory ley line connecting us to both these distant municipalities.

It’s all about food rooted in the Tyke terroir but with an undertow of new wave Belgian influences forging a bond with a powerful dark beer that similarly reflects the zest of a groundbreaking generation in that country.

In the bar of the Moorcock Inn at Norland there’s a well-thumbed copy of Kobe Desramaults’ eponymous cookbook. Moorcock co-owner Alisdair Brooke-Taylor was Kobe’s right hand man at his Michelin-starred In de Wulf at Dranouter, in a region poignantly dotted with Great War cemeteries.

When In de Wulf closed in 2105 Al and his sommelier partner, Aimee Tufford, brought back to the UK – among much else – an affinity with Belgian beer. That’s why if you look beyond hand pulls dispensing Yorkshire cask ales from Timothy Taylor and Vocation you’ll find a bottled beer list of dubbels and trippels, saisons, geuzes and lambics. Even different ages of Orval, if you’re lucky.

The Brouwerij De Ranke XX is on of my go-to beers in my quest for a true bitter finish. The hop freaks of contemporary Belgian brewing Nino Bacelle and Guido Devos have been brewing this 6.2 per cent pale ale since 1996. Unfiltered, unpasteurised, using only whole hops, not pellets. The only compromise is in the address. Dottignies, site of the brewery they built in 2004, is in Wallonia but the De Ranke official HQ is a mile or two away in Flemish territory.

• Listen to a Belgiansmaak podcast interview with De Ranke co-founder Nino Bacelle.

The XX is not on the Moorcock beer list but, to our surprise, there’s a limited edition 750ml sharing bottle of a De Ranke Back To Black, originally brewed for the 10th anniversary of another forward-thinking Belgian brewery, lambic specialists Moeder. Remarkable value at £16, it is billed as an imperial porter and it pours almost black. Brewed with seven different malts and aged in barrel for nine months, it is as complex as you’d expect, with a nose of oak (obviously), dark chocolate and figs/raisins, yet its smooth cherryish taste combines sourness and bitterness in perfect balance.

 Not quite what you’d expect but a Eureka moment. It is a quite perfect match for the Moorcock menu de jour (as they don’t say in the hills above Sowerby Bridge). When Kobe Desramault moved from farmhouse-based In de Wulf  to open Chambre Séparée in Ghent he took foraging and fire with him to an urban setting. The five-ton smokehouse and industrial-grade grill in the Moorcock car park seems a better fit here. So too, as the website proclaims, “250 acres of productive moorland, providing plenty of plants, berries, mushrooms and game”…. and an onsite organic kitchen garden.

Pick of the dishes off the blackboard were both fish-led. A mackerel tartare with preserved chestnuts and radish (£8), a combo I’ve never encountered before, tasted as distinctive as it looked – autumn on a plate, while the under-rated grey mullet becomes a star in treatment Al calls a ‘bouillabaisse’ that is a remove from the Provencal stereotype. Chunks of the line-caught fish are cooked en papillote with fennel and preserved lemon, both of which scent it marvellously. At £18 it is the second most expensive dish on a menu that usually contains only a couple of meat ‘mains’ these days. My companion is a vegetarian/pescatarian, so we veered in that direction.

The porter had a particular affinity with wood-roast kabucha (Japanese) pumpkin gnocchi (£13.50), strewn with a walnut pesto and curls of house ricotta. Not the prettiest dish and as substantial as it sounds, it felt a proper antidote to the inclemency of the weather.

Perhaps we were being greedy ordering the crispy smoked potatoes that are a Moorcock constant as well as a confit Jerusalem artichokes, wood-roast mushrooms in another intriguing marriage with laverbread and miso-pickled beans. I’m not quite sure this gelled, but then where else for miles around would you find any chef as consistently inventive. The drinks list put together by Aimee is equally special. 

Do make the trip up. On foot’s best for the sheer adventure. But definitely choose the right day! Captain Smidge (below) was the very definition of ‘wet dog’.

Moorcock Inn, Moor Bottom Lane, Norland, Sowerby Bridge HX6 3RP. 01422 832103.

A wet Wednesday morning in Mitton, Lancashire and I am admiring a tub of saffron milkcaps. Or to give this delectable wild mushroom its even more exotic Latin tag: Lactarius deliciosus. Not to be confused with the Woolly Milkcap (Lactarius torminosus), which is poisonous.

I ask the mycophile (edible mushroom gather) I’ve just met, Matt Rivers, if he every gets jittery about fungi identifications. There have been moments, he admits. He works a carefully chosen woodland patch to the east of Blackburn. He’d love to locate morels, a valuable restaurant staple, but so far no luck.

Matt is here at The Three Fishes, groundbreaking gastropub being brought back from the dead, because he has done business before with its chef/patron Nigel Haworth. In his days fronting Michelin-starred Northcote down the road Nigel – along with arch-rival Paul Heathcote – forged the gastronomic reputation of the Ribble Valley. 

But it was the collection of pubs, trading under the name Ribble Valley Inns, that spread the image of a terroir rich in raw materials and artisan providers. The Three Fishes was the first of these food-centric inns, back in 2004. There were five in total across the North West by the time RVI was bought by big bucks chain Brunning & Price in 2018. Nigel admits the final venture down into deepest Cheshire had been a step too far.

The new owners, with a strong presence in that county, chose not to add the Nag’s Head, Haughton to their 62-strong pub portfolio. Out of the four they did purchase Three Fishes was shut down within year. Bizarrely B&P already owned The Aspinall Arms a third of a mile away. Big money had been lavished on its refurb and consequently the Fishes languished in its shadow.

Nigel and his young staff have taken possession of the shiny new kitchen in the build up to November 12

All this is in the past, as is Nigel Haworth’s involvement with Northcote, now owned by the group behind London’s Stafford Hotel and Norma restaurant (read my review). In an act of of fate his current resurgence stems from a chance meeting at his beloved Obsession chef festival (the last one held, in 2020). Martin Aspinall’s family have been Ribble Valley grandees for centuries and he agreed to go 50:50 to fund The Three Fishes rebirth. 

As we negotiate a hectic construction work in progress Nigel tells me: “It was always in the back of my mind that I’d go back, though even I didn’t realise what a sorry state the building was in. New electrics, windows, a new kitchen and so much more, but we are getting there.”

The reopening was scheduled for the end of October but after “unexpected hurdles” the official opening date has now shifted to Wednesday November 17. Such is the popularity of Haworth and the Fishes’ reputation they have already been inundated with enquiries. Christmas should be sold out.

So what should returning devotees and a new generation of customers expect? “An offering somewhere between gastropub and fine dining with an emphasis on farm to fork sustainability,  new beginning” says Nigel.

Back in the day the pub’s walls were festooned with arty monochrome images of its suppliers, moody poses with pigs or cabbages and there was a map charting North West suppliers. Many of these veteran supporters are rallying to the new venture but Nigel’s new focus is growing on site with an acre of veg plot, a 30m x 10m poly tunnel and an emphasis on permaculture. “We’ll be composting all our own waste, aiming eventually at zero waste. For long term we are creating our own orchard, too. Giving back to the land. We are not looking back, we are looking forward.”

The food offering will concentrate on four course seasonal set menus – £50 at lunch, £65 in the evening. Mains will be in the £20-£30 bracket, puddings around an £8 price point. There will be a selection of 60 wines and beers will be local. A 16-capacity private dining room, with baronial sliding door symbolises the aspiration to transcend the old Fishes, which occasionally felt formulaic and canteen-like (in my opinion) despite the quality of the food.

The legendary Haworth hotpot, star of the BBC’s Great British Menu that has even been an upmarket ready meal

Lancashire hotpot is the dish synonymous with Nigel Haworth after his refined version, using local Lonk lamb, went all the way to the Banquet in Great British Menu a decade ago. Would it feature on the new Three Fishes Menu? I forgot to ask in the makeover tumult. Thanks to Nigel for mailing me a specimen menu later. No sign of the hotpot, but there’s grilled turbot, roasted red leg partridge and a fascinating Herdwick lamb combo – loin, liver, sticky belly, turnip gratin and pat choi. The whole menu goes up on the website by midday on Sunday, October 31 when bookings go live.

Behind schedule, having just lost a key member of his kitchen brigade, with the price of that favoured Herdwick lamb going through the roof, yet you sense it is not just The Three Fishes that is being reinvigorated. “Why am I doing this? Well, I just love to cook, that’s what I do.”

The philosopher Julian Baggini, considering rules in the kitchen, proposes a category of dishes called SIVs (Simple but Infinitely Variable) for various cuisines. The English exemplar is the Roast Dinner. Meat joint, root veg, roasties, Yorkies, gravy, condiments. There are only so many ways you can assemble this Sunday centrepiece and yet… nothing beats everybody’s Mum’s. Or if you’re into culinary dereliction, the congealing hotplate offering in your pub carvery.

I’ve written recently about the Sunday roast route for restaurants and its perils as a paradigm of Englishness. Imagine my surprise then when out of leftfield came a decision by Canto in Ancoats decision to push, alongside its Mediterranean tapas menu, a classic Sabbath selection of half roast chicken, beef sirloin or pork belly. 

You won’t find roasts at Simon Shaw’s sister restaurants, El Gato Negro (Spanish) and Habas (Middle Eastern), but then Canto has alway felt slight hybrid since the initial concept as a homage to  Portuguese food was ditched. Shame on the Manchester public for not buying into this distinctive Iberian cuisine.

The coup for Canto was installing Carlos Gomes as head chef. Porto-born, as it happens, he’s a former head chef at the original Barrafina in Soho, which gained a Michelin star for its Spanish small plates. His Canto menu is basically that too, the only remaining nod to Portugal a few wines, an octopus dish and the irresistible pastel de nata custard tarts.

An image I was sent of the Sunday pork belly almost convinced me to drop my prejudice against trad roasts, but the rest of the gallery had me salivating towards the Carlos’s new autumn/winter menu, launched at the same time. I didn’t regret it. Sampled early evening as a deluge sent the Cutting Room Square crowd scuttling for cover, it was the best array of dishes we’ve eaten at Canto and a couple were a real knock-out. If comfort food can count as a knock-out?

In showbiz you save the star turn till last; so it was with the braised ox cheek, crispy pancetta, celeriac and horseradish puree with kale (£11), a slow-cooked master work to blow any simple roast out of the oven. 

A similar intensity of flavour was present in one of the ‘warm-up’ acts. Jamon croquetas are my gooey crumbed balls of choice, but a swirl of black garlic mayo elevated a mushroom-filled version to umami heights (£6).

Not far behind were griddled cod with a black olive crust and confit potatoes (£9) and caramelised cauliflower in tomato and harissa spiced bean stew (£5.50), both soothing and seasonal in feel.

Octopus is a staple of North West Spain (pulpo) and Northern Portugal (polvo). Here for  £10, a substantial tentacle was served Portuguese lagareiro style, baked with spuds. Not subtle but cephalopod dishes rarely are.

Canto is dog-friendly and trying tiny chunks of octopus was a first for our chihuahua, Captain Smidge. He loved it almost as much as the Italian meatballs in an almondy tomato sauce with parmesan shavings (£8) we ordered with him in mind, but he snubbed the roasted beetroot with ajo blanco sauce (£5.50). Watching his waistline, we were frugal with our contributions of carrot cake and pastel de nata.

We ordered my favourite red on the wine list, from Dao in Portugal (where else?). The Quinta do Correio Tinto 2018 offers a riot of dark berry fruit, herbs and a beguiling smokiness. It’s a bargain at £37 a bottle (also available by the glass). Come to think of it, it would be a perfect partner for a Sunday roast.

Canto, Cutting Room Square, Blossom Street, Manchester M4 5DH.

Now open Wednesday and Thursday 5pm-11pm, Friday and Saturday 12pm-12am and Sunday 12pm-11pm.  The Sunday Roast menu offers two courses for £23 and three for £27, while on Saturdays ‘Tipsy Tapas’, provides great value, with three select dishes and unlimited Cava, Bellinis or house wine for 90 minutes at £35pp. It’s available from 12pm to 3pm until November 8, when the restaurant’s festive offer will officially launch. To make a reservation contact reservations@cantorestaurant.com or call 0161 870 5904.

One bane of a food writer’s life is reviewing a restaurant only to discover post haste that the menu’s about to change. Big time. Fortunately when I wrote up a September visit to Kala in Manchester my focus was on the glories of their featherblade steak, a signature dish across all the Elite Bistros group. 

This perennial stalwart remains on the new Autumn Menu, along with the obligatory truffle and parmesan chips, but there’s a whole raft of new dishes. I was alerted to their arrival by a chance meeting at a wine tasting of an old sommelier friend, who works out of Hispi, Kala’s sister restaurant in Didsbury. He was raving about a dish just created by Elite exec chef Richard Sharples  – a spiced field mushroom doughnut with sesame creamed spinach and caramelised celeriac gravy.

Solid reason to swiftly revisit Kala. It felt like fate when an invitation to sample the new menu suddenly dropped in my inbox. The doughnut turned out to be terrific, but the surprise package – and what a package – was the whole stuffed guinea fowl to share. OK, we were gannets to order both this and the surprisingly substantial doughnut as mains, ‘Mais nous ne regrettons rien’ as they say in Montparnasse or Montpellier.

Indeed there was something quintessential French bistro about this bird (let’s call it Le Pintade), while the fennel and apricot stuffing summoned up all our Christmases coming early. Better early than never with the current prophecies of festive dearth this year.

Our bird, encrusted with fennel and caraway seed, the moist stuffing lubricating the legs, came boned and ready to slice, a pool of pickled pear puree a neat enhancement for its  succulent interior. I couldn’t resist ordering the chips, but the bowl of the most delicate sauerkraut would have sufficed as a side.

We’d preceded the guinea fowl with that doughnut, its stretchy carapace harbouring  a teeming interior of braised fungi. Did it count as vegan? Jury’s out on the earthy creamed spinach, but the celeriac gravy was an inspired plant-based conceit.

Since the return to comparative dining room normality Elite Bistros boss Gary Usher has given his six venues leeway to branch out from the standard group menu, particularly with changing fish of the day picks. At Kala that Wednesday it was a choice of grilled whole plaice or pan-fried stone bass. 

My starter came from the fish specials because I’m a sucker for octopus and I was curious about how Kala’s daring combo would work, pitting the flamed cephalod against equally charred smoked corn and pickled currants. Maybe a red currant hot sauce gilded the piquant lily too much, but it’s typical of a hugely to be trusted menu that is still not afraid to push bistro boundaries.

An unqualified success was my partner’s starter, even if her initial qualm was: doughnut and dumpling in the same lunch? Fear unfounded. The dumpling was a light, gnudi-like pillow of great delicacy, as beautiful to look at as it was to eat, topped with grated Killeen cheese, all nutty and floral, a cauliflower puree base dotted with blobs of lemon and chive oils plus pickled shallot.

We finished off with Chocolate ‘Oblivion’ and poached pear with Sauternes jelly, the former with mint choc chip ice cream, the latter with walnut praline ice. Comforting autumnal bistro staples both. Wines by the glass had been appropriate for each dish and special mention for the Delicioso ‘En Rama’ Manzanilla that got us off to the perfect start, partnering Gordal olives and Don Bocarte anchovies. Isn’t autumn really rather wonderful?

Kala, 55 King Street, Manchester, M2 4LQ. 0161 839 3030. Reservations 0800 160 1811. The three course menu costs £40 for three courses, £35 for two. There’s a £16 supplement for that guinea fowl. There’s a limited choice bistro set meal available lunch and early evening.

Those Facebook memories to share that pop up are a relentless reminder of time passing. Was it really 11 years ago I laid out an unplucked pheasant alongside a seasonal red cabbage on our garden table to pictorially celebrate my personal ‘Game for a Laugh’? (that cultural reference dates me instantly) during Manchester Food and Drink Festival.

En route to co-host a ‘Wine Tour of Spain’ event at Manchester’s People’s History Museum with Jane Dowler of Evuna, I bumped into legendary chef Robert Owen Brown, with whom I later collaborated on the cookbook, Crispy Squirrel and Vimto Trifle (Manchester Books, £15.99).

He tempted me into Mulligans off Bridge Street for a couple of palate-refreshing stouts. Drink taken, Rob offered me the pick of a swag bag full of feathered game. I still have the Barbour jacket, twice re-waxed, I was wearing that day, but never since have I stuffed a brace of partridges into the big inside pockets.

Later at the PHM, as I introduced a dense, dark Monastrell from La Mancha as the perfect accompaniment to game, notably Spain’s native red-legged partridge, I drew out my feathered props gunslinger-like to the consternation and then amusement of the front row. 

Our chihuahua, Captain Smidge, is partial to partridge. And since The Edinburgh Castle in Ancoats is dog-friendly he accompanied me to its monthly ‘Trust The Chef’ blind tastingdinner, the first since it was crowned Pub of the Year at the 2021 Manchester Food and Drink Awards. The theme was game, so there was every chance of the Smidge (and my) fave. As it turned out we enjoyed a trio of gamey treats – venison, woodcock and partridge (oops, I never asked what colour its legs had been).

‘Trust The Chef’ had already turned all autumnal for its September five-courser, taking advantage of head chef Iain Thomas’ personal veg harvest from his plot at The Hattersley Projects in Tameside.

Iain’s impressive track record includes stints at Establishment in Manchester (where Rosso now is), at Paul Kitching’s Michelin-starred 21212 in Edinburgh and alongside Davey Aspin, one of the iconic chef names in Scotland. 

So a red deer starter from Pitscandly Farm outside Forfar promised to be an object lesson in sourcing and so it proved. Prepared as as a tartare, it was simply glorious with beetroot done three ways – roasted, puréed and in a sorbet. To follow, a rich game ‘tea’ hosted a mallard breast. The tea, product of some serious reduction, was a savoury treat to the last spoonful; the mallard had a fine gamey flavour but was sinewy, as wild duck can be, and Smidge had to help out. Alongside, a rillette of mallard joined duck liver pate in a smart take on a club sandwich. Dunked in the tea, the brioche butty disintegrated delightfully.

Our gourmet hound was decidedly keen on the partridge, highlight of the five courses. A touch tricksy with its bread sauce espuma and two red onion skin cradles for a borlotti bean leg meat ‘cassoulet’, but the star of the composition was tender 

à point partridge breast. There were wine matches available for each course but we ordered (inevitably) a big Spanish red recommended by our server. The Ritme Priorat from Southern Catalonia, a well structured blend of Garnacha and Carignan, coped admirably with each game dish and the cheese course, moist and nutty Pitchfork Cheddar, accompanied by a chutney made with Iain’s own Hattersley tomatoes. Smidge confined himself to nibbling crumbs of oatcake, which summed up a copacetic, dog-friendly evening at The Castle.

The pudding course homage to Snickers, a 60 per cent chocolate parfait with candied peanuts, was deemed too rich for the little fellow. I suspect it features more regularly given chef Iain’s commitment to sustainable chocolate, supporting local bean providers in Colombia.

The regular menu gives a bid nod to Scottish produce. Good also to see a game terrine there, featuring venison, foie gras and, splendidly, grouse. The departure of my compadre Owen Brown seven years ago left a grouse-shaped hole in Manchester (the classic Rob picture below is by Joby Catto). The city scene moves on, but in Iain Thomas the Edinburgh Castle may have found its own talented ‘game changer’.

The Edinburgh Castle, 17-19 Blossom Street, Ancoats, Manchester. M4 5AW. The five course Trust the Chef menu costs £60pp for five courses. Wine flight extra. The next instalment is on Wednesday, November 3. To book in advance email bookings@ec-ancoats.com.

It’s always great when some of your favourite food and drink acts get the major plaudits. The weekend buzz was all about Erst in Ancoats being praised to the skies by Observer critic Jay Rayner. Deservedly so. I last reviewed it pre-pandemic and still remember a remarkable experience.

Equally immense has been the contribution of Pollen Bakery, not far away at New Islington Marina. Check out my recent celebration of their 28 hour sourdough. The public obviously share my opinion. They voted them Artisan Food Producer of the Year in the Manchester Food and Drink Awards on Monday, held in the really rather remarkable Escape To Freight Island Ticket Hall. Fittingly Escape themselves won Pop Up/Project of the Year. 

Chef of the Year Rachel Stockley gets a well-deserved hug from Baratxuri co-owner Fiona Botham

But the big winner on the night was Baratxuri, the Ramsbottom pintxos bar that also has a wood-fired outlet at Freight Island. It won Restaurant of the Year and its chef Rachel Stockley (above) Chef of the Year.

Receiving her award, she gave an impassioned speech about the role of women in the hospitality industry. To see what all the fuss is about re Baratxuri and its big sister Levanter read my glowing review from earlier this month.

In total 16 award winners were announced from food and drink establishments across Greater Manchester in this fitting climax to a resurgent Manchester Food and Drink Festival, which saw a record 80,000 visitors coming to the Festival Hub at Cathedral Gardens. 

This year it was an Awards with a difference. The shortlists were compiled by the MFDF judging panel, made up of the region’s leading food and drink critics, writers and experts (including yours truly). Amid challenging circumstances, the ‘mystery shopping’ element of the judging process was paused this year. Instead, the winners were decided entirely by the public – with food and drink fans voting in their thousands via the website. And the winners were…

Restaurant of the Year – Baratxuri, Ramsbottom

Shortlisted: Adam Reid at The French; Erst, Ancoats; Hawksmoor; Mana, Ancoats; Sparrows; Street Urchin; Where The Light Gets In; Baratxuri, Ramsbottom.

Recognising the ‘best of the best’ dining establishments in Greater Manchester in 2021, this category refers to venues visited primarily for a full dining experience featuring table service, alcohol license etc.

Chef of the Year – Rachel Stockley

Shortlisted: Adam Reid (The French); Eddie Shepherd (The Walled Gardens), Mary-Ellen McTague (The Creameries, Chorlton); Patrick Withington (Erst, Ancoats); Sam Buckley (WTLGI, Stockport); Simon Martin (Mana, Ancoats); Terry Huang (Umezushi); Rachel Stockley (Baratxuri, Ramsbottom).

Aiming to recognise the most talented and outstanding work of chefs cooking in Greater Manchester kitchens – their skill, menu, commitment and contribution to the dining scene.

Newcomer of the Year – Ramona, Swan Street
Shortlisted: District, NQ; Open Kitchen MCR; Osma, Prestwich; Pho Cue; Schofield’s Bar; Society; The Moor, Heaton Moor; Ramona.

Recognising the best new food and drink operations to open in Greater Manchester since the last awards decision period (August 2020). Date eligibility: Establishments opened between August 2020 and June 2021. Sponsored by the Manchester Evening News.

Bar of the Year – Albert’s Schloss, Peter Street

Shortlisted: Henry C Chorlton; Kiosk West Didsbury; Schofield’s Bar; Speak in Code; 

The Blues Kitchen; The Jane Eyre, Ancoats, Three Little Words, Albert’s Schloss.

Recognising the best drinking venues in the region that specialise in a “wet-led” offer and aren’t considered ‘pubs’. 

Pub or Craft Ale Bar of the Year – Edinburgh Castle,  Ancoats

Shortlisted: Beatnikz Republic; Cob and Coal, Oldham; Heaton Hops, Heaton Chapel; Society, Manchester; Nordie, Levenshulme; Reasons To Be Cheerful, Burnage; Stalybridge Buffet Bar; Edinburgh Castle.

Recognising the finest pub and beer bars in the region, focusing on quality and range of ales, beers and atmosphere. 

Artisan Food Producer of the Year – Pollen Bakery, Cotton Field Wharf,

Shortlisted: Bread Flower;  Companio Bakery, Ancoats; Gooey, Ducie Street Warehouse; Holy Grain Sourdough, Great Northern Mews; Just Natas, Manchester Arndale; Lily’s Deli, Chorlton; Manchester Smokehouse; Pollen Bakery.

Celebrating the fabulous array of food producers popping up around the region, including bakeries, picklers, pie makers and everything in between.

Pop Up/ Project of the Year – Escape to Freight Island, Baring Street

Shortlisted: Eat Well MCR; GRUB, Red Bank; Homeground, Medlock St; Kampus Summer Guest Events, Aytoun Street; Platt Fields Market, Platt Fields Market Garden; One Central, Charis House, Altrincham; MIF Festival, Festival Square; Escape to Freight Island.

Recognising exciting projects and events and showcasing innovation and creativity within the food and beverage sector.

Neighbourhood Venue of the Year – Lily’s, Ashton-under-Lyne

Shortlisted: Bar San Juan, Chorlton; Levanter, 10 Square St, Ramsbottom; Erst, Ancoats;

The Fisherman’s Table, Marple; Porta, Salford; Oystercatcher, Chorlton; Stretford Foodhall; Lily’s.

This award is set to recognise the superb establishments that are based in the suburbs of Greater Manchester. Sponsored by Roomzzz Aparthotels.

Food Trader of the Year – Wholesome Junkies, Manchester Arndale

Shortlisted – Abeja Tapas Bar, Hatch; Archchi’s; Gooey, Ducie Street Warehouse; Honest Crust; Maison Breizh; Pico’s Tacos; Tender Cow; Wholesome Junkies.
Awarding the Greater Manchester-based food heroes that are gracing our food halls, markets and events with an ever increasing range of gastro goods

Affordable Eats of the Year – Rudy’s, Ancoats and Peter Street

Shortlisted: Abeja Tapas Bar; Chapati Café, Chorlton; Ca Phe Viet, Ancoats; Little Yeti, Chorlton; Lily’s, Ashton-under-Lyne; Mi & Pho, Northenden; Platt Fields Market Garden; Rudy’s Pizza.

Recognising the best venues that are visited for a high value, quick and simple dining experience. Sponsored by Just Eat.

Coffee Shop of the Year: Federal, Nicholas Croft, NQ

Sortlisted: Another Heart to Feed, NQ; Ancoat’s Coffee, Royal Mill; Ezra & Gil, NQ; Grindsmith; Grapefruit, Sale; Just Between Friends, NQ; Pollen Bakery, Ancoats; Federal.

Recognising the best coffee shops and bars in Greater Manchester.

Veggie/Vegan Offering of the Year – Bundobust, Piccadilly

Shortlist: Eddie Shepherd (Walled Gardens, Whalley Range); Four Side Pizza, NQ); Herbivorous, Hatch; Lily’s, Ashton-under-Lyne; Sanskruti, Mauldeth Rd; Wholesome Junkies, Manchester Arndale; Vertigo, several venues; Bundobust (also now on Oxford Street).

This award recognises venues that provide innovative and exciting dining options for vegetarian and vegan diners.

Independent Drinks Producer of the Year – Manchester Gin, Watson Street
Shortlisted: Bundobust; Cloudwater Brewery; Diablesse Rum; Hip Pop (Formerly Booch & Brew), Dunham Massey; Northern Monkey, Bolton); Pomona Island Beer Brew Co, Salford; Steep Soda Co,; Manchester Gin.

Celebrating the many exciting and innovative producers of artisan drinks in Greater Manchester.

Food and Drink Retailer of the Year – Ancoats General Store 

Shortlisted: The Butcher’s Quarter, NQ; Bernie’s Grocery Store, Heaton Moor; Grape to Grain, Prestwich and Ramsbottom; Isca, Levenshulme; Out of the Blue, Chorlton; Unicorn Grocery, Chorlton; Wandering Palate, Eccles; Ancoats General Store.

The Best Food and Drink Retailer celebrates the best food and drink shopping experiences in the region.

Foodie Neighbourhood of the Year – Altrincham

Shortlisted: Heaton Moor, Prestwich, Ramsbottom, Sale, Stockport, Stretford, Urmston, Altrincham.

New for 2021, this award has been set up to celebrate those thriving communities and neighbourhoods in Greater Manchester that continue to build a name for themselves as a foodie destination outside the city centre.

Outstanding Achievement Award – Mital Morar (Store Group)

Recognising someone who has contributed something outstanding to the hospitality industry in Greater Manchester.

Destination restaurants in Manchester hotels are almost extinct. The days when Michael Caines had his name over the door at Abode and David Gale ruled Podium at the Hilton further down Piccadilly are long gone. Both now offer standard hotel brasserie fare. As do relative newcomers such as Dakota (though their Grill, well sourced, is surprisingly good), QBIC and Hotel Brooklyn.

Adam Reid, following his mentor Simon Rogan at The French inside the Midland Hotel, continues to fly the flag for Great British Menu style fine dining, but even that failed to make the cut in this year’s Estrella Damm Top 100 UK Restaurants list.

Arguably the city’s most high profile hotel, The Lowry, has dumbed down from the early Noughties days when German chef Eyck Zimmer created some of the finest dishes ever seen in Manchester. Recent restaurant space makeovers there and at the Radisson Edwardian do not equate to a radical upgrade of the food offering. The Peter Street Kitchen at the latter, partnering Mexican and Japanese menus, is a wild card, though. Let’s leave it at that.

Which bring us to Sunday lunches, a perennial draw in hotel dining rooms. Scrap them at your peril. The worst case scenario being carveries, which discreetly we’ll shove on the back burner.

Possibly the best roast in town is inside the Stock Exchange Hotel, at the Bull and Bear. You’d expect that from Tom Kerridge, whose whole ethos trumpets comfort food done with accomplishment. But, though the stunning setting sings ‘destination’, we’re not talking food on a level of his two Michelin star pub in Marlow, The Hand and Flowers.

The Ducie Street Warehouse has relaunched its own Sunday Lunch offering with the added bonus of the UK’s first dedicated Cauliflower Cheese Menu, courtesy of head chef Andrew Green, who has previous in this department. At Mamucium dairy took centre stage one ‘Cheesemas’ with a menu that included a 3kg cheese wheel to share. 

I must admit my arteries wobbled at the though of tackling classic vintage cheddar cauliflower cheese and twists featuring truffle, bacon fizzles, blue cheese (our choice), garlic and herb crusted, macaroni, a totally vegan cauliflower cheese and, the ultimate, a four cheese version with parmesan, gruyere, philadelphia and cheddar. 

Relief came at table when I realised they were all sides at £4.50 a pop. Alternatives included old stagers such as Cumbrian pigs-in-blankets and honey roasted heirloom carrots.

Head chef Andrew Green is a meat and cheese specialist putting his stamp on Ducie Street Warehouse

Glossop-born Andrew has been one of the Manchester chef stalwarts in recent years. Though he started in an Italian restaurant, the rest of his his professional career has been in hotel kitchens, a couple at the Airport before he headed up The Lowry’s and then Mamucium’s. His forte has been meat cooking, notably a classic Beef Wellington, and he has always sourced from top notch butchers such as Mettrick’s, WH Frost and currently The Butcher’s Quarter.

So why am I slightly disappointed in the dry-aged shorthorn beef sirloin and roast supreme of corn fed chicken we share as mains? Small plate starters had signalled a user-friendly, standard, global hotel menu, but our mains didn’t take it up a gear. A pond of all-purpose gravy, chewy roasties and chunky Yorkies didn’t do the meats any favours – the chicken tasty enough but on the dry side, beef sliced in thin wafers needed the lift of the horseradish we requested.

Alternative Sunday mains were rosemary roasted leg of lamb, free-range gammon and a weekly changing vegan roast. You can even order a pick and mix of all four meats on the plate. Nothing to scare the punters but lacking the pizzazz of the setting, the vast stylish ground floor below the Native Hotel.

Slightly more exciting sounding is access to two-to-share offerings that sit in the normal a la carte – harissa spiced whole chicken, miso glazed fish of the day, 800g tomahawk of Cheshire beef or a whole roasted ‘ras el hanout’ cauliflower. 

Bistrotheque was the initial food and beverage offering when Native created 166 apartments in the Grade 11 listed Victorian warehouse back in. It was soon apparent its quirky comfort food at posh prices formula didn’t transfer well from the East London original, so after six months it was ditched and the 80 cover dining room became Restaurant at CULTUREPLEX (the co-working, arty raison d’etre for the rest of the ground floor). Highlight of this manifestation was a pop-up by the cutting edge restaurant team of Higher Ground (now operating Flawd at New Islington Marina). Its front of house expert, Richard Cossins, famously opened Fera at Claridge’s for Simon Rogan. But that was London and this is Manchester,  where the real culinary frissons are rarely to be found inside hotels. Now pass the horseradish.

Sunday with Sides’ is available every Sunday, with special cocktail offers and live music, from 12.30pm to 8.30pm at The Ducie Street Warehouse, 51 Ducie Street, Manchester, M1 2TP.

Such has been the impact of District, hyper-stylised Oldham Street take on “progressive barbecue cookery and liquid intelligence inspired by a future Bangkok”, that it soared into the Best Newcomer shortlist of the 2021 Manchester Food and Drink Awards just weeks after opening. 

10 Tib Lane, an altogether quieter affair (no synthwave soundtrack), didn’t. It launched a crucial couple of months later and missed the cut.

What do they have in common? Both are sophomore projects of Northern Quarter ramen rivals; in District’s case Danny Collins, in 10 Tib Lane’s Ben Gretton and Tom De Santis. Their new ventures diverge fascinatingly. 

At Tokyo Ramen, pet project of Japanophile duo Collins and Stephanie Chiu, I adored the broth and noodles, but the stark experience erred towards being in a holding cell for Yakuza mobsters. Albeit only for a swift lunch break before parole. 

Two minutes’ walk away Cocktail Beer Ramen + Bun was more fun, is more fun, playful of concept, the cocktails good. They are far better at 10 Tib Lane, where new business partner Joe White of Chorlton Bar Henry C can be found manning the bar. French-influenced small plates have upped their game too and the wine and beer offering is cannily chosen.

So what of District? Collins trumpeted pre-launch, in a way of justifying a pricey platform of tasting menus: “We don’t want dining to be a quick in-out job. Restaurants can be a place to spend a whole evening, at a pace that really allows you to relax.”

Visiting early evening, the sole customer for 40 minutes. I couldn’t gauge how mellow an extended stay with a full house might turn out. I didn’t mind the bombardment from the sound system because I had no one to talk to, apart from my excellent server Katie, who offered to write a full brief on each dish and its manifold constituents.

For her sake I was glad I had chosen the simplest menu, the £40 ‘My First Crush’ (“A new life awaits you in the Off-world colonies. A chance to begin again in  golden land of opportunity and adventure!” So not really Oldham Street).

As it turned out, with a substantial open kitchen team devoted to my needs, the seven course meal lasted under an hour and a half, which well suited me (with a Modern British Cider tasting head of me in the Green Quarter).

‘The Full Experience’  (“Do questionable things. See things you wouldn’t believe. All moments will be lost in time like tears in the rain.”) would have cost me £85 for 11 courses. No director’s cut discounts for recognising the Blade Runner quotes, but would the dishes set in my (immediate) future be outlandishly out of this world? The voyage started well.  A ceviche of Cornish wild sea bass tasted as exquisite as it looked, the pearly raw flesh dotted with Thai basil mayo and spiked with gaunt purple yam crisps. Punchy is the word for the pool of nam jim sauce the bass sits on. It’s a sour, salty, sweet amalgam of garlic, fish sauce, coriander root and not too assertive bird’s eye chilli.

Next up, ‘Not Tacos’ is two savoury discs that riff on the T word, one a purple corn tostada topped with nam tok (waterfall  beef) made with seared rib-eye, the other a soft omelette pancake bearing short rib cooked with turmeric and dried spices, southern curry style. It’s a one swallow each. A bit like shots, the hit is in the aftertaste. Just slightly unsatisfying.

Dishes three and four come in tandem, their contrast this time making perfect sense. I shall refer to Katie’s extensive note on this one, which definitely spares my short term memory.

Fire is at the centre of what District is about. That and dystopian lighting in disturbing purple, especially in the downstairs bar. The coals at the end of the kitchen counter offer a more welcoming glow. On them pork coppa shoulder was seared, slivers of it smeared with a tamarind jeaw or dipping sauce that in this instance offers a real umami smack. In beautiful contrast is the accompanying bowl of that under-rated brassica kohlrabi, cooked sous vide, carved into curls. It is dressed with, and I quote, palm sugar, lime juice, fish sauce, shrimp paste, bird’s eye chillies, then mixed with tomatoes candied in fish sauce caramel, crushed peanuts, ‘shrimp floss’ and long beans. It managed to be refreshing and complex.

All was building up to the chicken dish that seemed to constitute a main because it came with a portion or rice cooked in rich chicken stock, topped with crisped chicken skin.

There was an intense broth of coconut and galangal, laced with spring onion oil, that featured shimeji mushrooms and charred sweetcorn which demanded to be mopped up by every grain of rice. And the corn-fed chicken? An elaborate pan-Asian conceit that involved confiting chicken thighs in chicken fat, then removing the bones and pressing the flesh on skewers over coals.

All this was an absolute delight but then the meal tapered off. Massaman curry I always find a mite muddy and it didn’t do any favours for Herdwick hogget rump, slow-cooked then finished on the barbecue. A large minty oba leaf felt extraneous too.

Finally, the dessert called “It was only a dream” was hardly a nightmare but the mango, coconut fudginess was disappointingly bland. An esteemed colleague acutely compared the puffed rice topping to Coco Pops.

These are only tiny quibbles. But with their prices set to rise (up to £50 and £100 respectively) from the start of November and belt-tightening on the winter agenda District may need to refresh the launch menus to maintain its impetus. It’s not quite the Manchester game changer that drew the initial encomiums. There are definite echoes of Pan-Asian places head chef Ben Humphreys (second from right in the line-up) previously worked at – Australasia, the undervalued Tattu and, most closely, Rabbit In The Moon, definitely in decibel/dark decor levels.

The Thai barbecue approach has also led to comparisons with Kiln in Soho, but that has a more authentic jungle feel of raucous sizzle and the ingredients aren’t as polite (see above). Perhaps turn up the heat, District. To quote Roy Batty in Blade Runner: “Fiery the angels fell. Deep thunder rolled around their shoulders… burning with the fires of Orc.”

District, 60 Oldham St, Manchester M4 1LE.

No, I didn’t succumb in that first lockdown to making my own sourdough. Life’s too fleeting. In the past I’d had more starters than University Challenge… and more flaccid failures. So the pillars of my home loaf baking remained a classic white tin loaf and an Irish sourdough (Richard Corrigan’s tried and tested Gentleman’s Journal recipe with extra treacle).

Sticking with the Irish, I knew a chef in deepest County Cork who rose at 3am every morning to start the daily croissant making process. Five hours later the cute little viennoiseries were sitting in your breakfast table basket, crisp, flakey and buttery. 

Yet which of his guests would have given a thought to the Herculean effort involved in juggling the temperatures of the ‘beurre de tourrage’ (butter block) and the ‘détrempe’ (yeast-leavened dough) as folding and folding created the requisite multiple layers demanded by La Tradition Française?

On occasions I succumb to the convenience of supermarket croissants but there really is no substitute for the real thing. Manchester patisserie chain Bisous Bisous manage the trick, as do Pollen Bakery at the city’s New Islington Marina. The added incentive in the trek there is, after a cappuccino and croissant in the cafe, to carry home the absolute star of the Pollen range – the 28 hour sour, which is made with a blend of white flour, wholemeal flour and rye, each added for nutritional value and flavour. All flours organic and 100 per cent stoneground

The length of the proving process is to allow all the water to fully hydrate the grain which allows it to lock all the nutrients and make it more digestible. The glossy exterior is the evidence of that work having been done, apparently. The only sourdough that has bettered it in my experience is one we discovered at the Wild Flour Bakery at Freestone along California’s Bohemian Highway (I kid you not).

Co-founders Hannah Calvert (she has a croissant tattooed on her arm) and Chris Kelly started up the bakery in late 2016 in a Sheffield Street railway arch near Piccadilly Station before moving to the Marina premises, which allowed them to open their hugely popular café. Now there’ s a fresh Pollen in the offing.

Kampus has hosted cutting edge restaurants Tine and Higher Ground in its ‘Bungalow’, foreground

Let’s ‘Pollinate’ KAMPUS

KAMPUS, Manchester’s self-styled garden neighbourhood of variegated apartment blocks, cultivated by CAPITAL&CENTRIC and HBD, seems to be competing with the rival developers down at Deansgate Square to plant quality food and drink offerings on the doorstep of their new tenants.

After the success of high profile pop-ups Higher Ground and Tine the indie likes of General Stores and Nell’s Pizzeria have signed up for permanent units, but Pollen relocating their pastry team to a Kampus ground floor site is the real coup. Looking out over the ‘tropical’ garden, the Pollen café will offer indoor and outdoor seating and room for workshops and supper clubs. Plus an expanded brunch menu. Opening is planned for early 2022.